Research Profiles - Music Research and Compostition
The Department of Music Research and Composition approaches music as a form of creative activity and an object of intellectual engagement. Our composers create music for both traditional ensembles and electronic media. Our scholars reflect on the character, history, and organization of music. The department offers a wide range of undergraduate degrees including a Bachelor of Music with Honours in Music History, Music Theory, and Composition; a Bachelor of Arts degree with a Major in Popular Music Studies; and a Specialization in Music Administrative Studies. The MA and PhD are offered in Musicology and in Music Theory, and the MMus and PhD are offered in Composition.
Emily Abrams Ansari
How does music reflect and adapt to changing political attitudes? How are those who write music shaped by their times? How might government policy impact music-making and composition, and music-makers shape policy in return? What leads politicians to turn to musicians to advance their agendas around the world, and what makes musicians decide to make their music overtly political? My research considers these questions by examining the relationship between music and politics across the Americas during the Cold War, assessing the impact of this ideological impasse on all different kinds of musicians, from amateur folk music performers to classical composers.
My first book—The Sound of a Superpower: Musical Americanism and the Cold War—published by Oxford University Press considers the ways in which the Cold War shaped the lives and musical works of American classical composers who were committed to creating a uniquely American tradition, like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.
My current project examines the role of music in El Salvador's Civil War (1979-92) refugee camps. Folk music fulfilled numerous functions for refugees from this conflict, who fled to Honduras. Music bore witness to horrific atrocities; it reinforced shared nationalist sentiments; it served as a tool of political protest, promoting alternatives to oligarchical rule; and it aided psychological recovery after intense trauma. Working with a team of scholars from a range of disciplines, including Media Studies, History, and Psychiatry, my work in this area will contribute to an accessible history of the camps built on collaborative workshops with former residents of the camps.
My recent research interests have resulted in three commissions for new compositions, each with an international connection. Sõduri Ema (Soldier’s Mother) is a new choral work based on a poem by Estonia’s most famous poet, Marie Under. Commissioned by Soundstreams, the work is written for one of the world’s great choirs: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Over the next two seasons, the work will receive three international performances. Regarding U.S. Patent 1,661,058 recently received its premiere and second performance. Written for German Theremin virtuoso Carolina Eyck, the work was commissioned by the Penderecki String Quartet, and is scheduled for additional performances in Europe during the 2017-18 concert season. Finally, STELCO, a new composition for percussion and piano premiered in the spring of 2017. Written for Scottish percussion virtuoso Dame Evelyn Glennie, the was part of a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble.
My compositions are informed by several active research interests. Ancient Estonian Runo-songs have figured prominently in many of my compositions since 2004 (Üheksa Eesti Regilaulud, Violin Concerto, Metsa Maasikad, Piano Quartet no. 1). I have an interest in composing for electronic instruments, which has resulted in an ongoing catalogue of works (Annunciation for string quartet and live electronics, Prelude, Entr’acte and Postlude for ensemble and live electronics, The Flaying of Marsyas, for violin and suspended electronic musician). As well, I have recently been asked to arrange pre-existing work, creating new ‘covers’ of Schubert’s Ave Maria, Raymond Levesque’s Quand les Hommes Vivront d’Amour, traditional devotional songs Nearer, My God, to Thee and How Great Thou Art, and several of Ennio Morricone’s early film scores.
My research concerns the music of J. S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, as well as that of other eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century composers. My engagement with this music focuses on how counterpoint—the process of combining multiple melodies simultaneously—informs its structure. The method through which I examine this music is that of Schenkerian analysis: a form of music analysis that breaks down musical compositions into hierarchical, structural layers. I study how melodies can exchange positions with each other, where melodies that occupy higher registers can trade places with melodies that reside in lower registers, a centuries-old practice known as invertible counterpoint. Although traditional Schenkerian analysis incorporates counterpoint as one of its guiding principles, it does not typically utilize invertible counterpoint in a similar way. Indeed, Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935), the theorist after whom Schenkerian analysis is named, went so far as to say that invertible counterpoint is a fallacious concept. My research, however, challenges this notion by demonstrating, through numerous analyses of J. S. Bach’s music, that the theory that governs Schenkerian analysis contains the seeds for invertible counterpoint to flourish. This research program formed the basis of my first published article, “‘A Fallacious Concept’: Invertible Counterpoint at the Twelfth within the Ursatz,” published by Music Theory Spectrum in 2010. In 2012, this article won the Society for Music Theory’s Outstanding Publication Award, which “is given for a distinguished article by an author of any age or career stage.” Since writing this article, I have continued to publish upon the interaction of invertible counterpoint with different aspects of Schenkerian theory and musical form within many venues, including Indiana Theory Review, Theory and Practice, Intégral, Intersections, and Gamut.
In 2009, I began working on the Optical Neume Recognition Project which applies modified optical character recognition (OCR) technology to medieval musical notation called neumes. By creating a 'dictionary' of neume signs, the computer can now identify each neume on a digital image of a page in a book of medieval chant, cataloguing them and ranking them in order of graphic similarity and storing information about how often a particular neume appears in combinations. Now, instead of pouring over hundreds of pages of literally millions of neumes, we can electronically search each scanned image using optical music recognition (OMR) software.
Recently, the Optical Neume Recognition Project, along with CANTUS (a project that was housed for many years at Western) and several other projects, joined with the Single Interface for Music Score Searching and Analysis (SIMSSA) to create a single online clearinghouse for digital images of musical scores, both printed and handwritten. In addition to this work with neume notations, I lead a project in which computational algorithms normally used in computational linguistics are applied to Gregorian chant melodies. Currently, I am part of medieval research teams at the University of Lisbon, the National University of Ireland, the Alamire Foundation (Belgium), the University of Toronto, and with the online Cantus Database.
Always looking to bring life to music history, I have co-directed the Early Music Studio in the past, and have sung with the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir since 2000.
My research interests primarily focus on the performance practices of singing from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and I have given master classes on historical principles of interpretation in Australia, Austria, Britain, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, and the USA. I first became interested in coaching singers as a young accompanist (lute), who realized that early-music specialists could bring scores to life in exciting ways by rooting their performances in period treatises. But beyond historical performance, I also work in the fields of popular music and recording practices.
Over the years, I have published five books on the history of singing, as well as a monograph on 1960s popular music, and I’m currently completing a text on recording classical music. My most recent books, practical guides to singing which reflect my many years of vocal coaching, have been widely praised by performers and scholars. Bel Canto (2013) has been described as “revolutionary” and “a must-read for singers, teachers of singing, vocal coaches, and conductors”, while With Passionate Voice (2014) has been noted for its “unique blend of profound, searching scholarship [and] inspired application for teaching and guiding young performers”. In addition, two articles have been anthologized in collections of “the most important and influential published articles” that have “shaped” their respective fields (historical performance and popular music).
My new production company, Talbot Productions, will soon issue its first recording.Secret Fires of Love, a collection of 16th to 18th-century songs in historically appropriate vocal styles, features Australian tenor, Daniel Thomson, Canadian lutenist, Terry McKenna, and German harpsichordist, Thomas Leininger under my musical direction in a program ranging from an anonymous 16th-century villanella to cantatas by Albinoni and Conti.